We started the year in quiet contemplation here on the Crotchety Man blog but now it’s time to shake off the torpor of the holiday season and get moving. And, you know, nothing says “let’s get this show on the road” better than Jessica by The Allman Brothers Band.
Jessica is an instrumental from the Brothers and Sisters album released in 1973. It was written mostly by Dickey Betts, the lead guitarist. He had the germ of an idea but was unable to develop it until his baby daughter, Jessica, came in and started bouncing to the music. Taking his cue from little Jessica’s antics Betts nailed the carefree rhythm and playful tune that makes this track so irresistible. It needed a bit more work before it could be performed and recorded, though, and that led to a certain amount of controversy and bitterness.
The story goes that Betts invited session guitarist Les Dudek over for dinner and they played the unfinished song together. While Betts was checking on the steaks Dudek came up with a bridge that Betts felt was exactly the right missing piece to complete the song. The whole band then worked on the track in the studio. In the final arrangement Dudek played acoustic rhythm guitar which provides a nice intro but is largely overshadowed by Greg Allman’s organ and session musician Chuck Leavell’s electric piano, not to mention Dickey Betts’ wonderful lead guitar.
Dudek, who felt he had written an essential part of the song and had worked out guitar harmonies with Betts, was somewhat miffed. What rankled him the most was that he wasn’t credited as a co-writer but, as he was only drafted in as a session musician, there was nothing he could do about that. As spats among rock musicians go this was a minor tremor compared with some of the more earth-shaking bust-ups we read about from time to time but it clearly left Dudek quite resentful.
Jessica is the finest example of Southern Rock known to Crotchety Man. It marries the boundless energy of a toddler with the clean-living country air of the Georgian farmstead where it was written. And it bounces along like a seven month old baby grooving to her daddy’s guitar, which is, of course, exactly what Dickey Betts was trying to achieve. The Allman Brothers Band made plenty of really good records but, for me, Jessica is far and away the best thing they ever did.
In the UK, at least, Jessica is familiar to millions of motoring enthusiasts as the theme from the BBC TV programme Top Gear. Until fairly recently the programme was hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May who entertained viewers with silly stunts and amusing reviews of the latest cars. Jeremy Clarkson, especially, could be dismissive or downright insulting in his comments. (There are several pages dedicated to Jeremy Clarkson quotes on the Internet.)
I didn’t watch Top Gear but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, after the theme tune and a few words of introduction, Clarkson used to call out to his co-presenters, “let’s get this show on the road”. And I’m sure little Jessica Betts would gurgle her whole-hearted approval.